NYMPHOMANIAC

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I’ve only seen two films by Lars von Trier, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, and I think they could both be best described as banal.  Each has a prominent organizing hook, and each hook is developed in the tritest way possible.

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In Melancholia, a dysfunctional extended family is being torn apart by bleak despair at the same time — the exact same time! – as a previously hidden planet is hurtling towards a possible collision with the Earth.  The name of the planet is — wait for it — Melancholia!  What are the odds?

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In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounts a life devoted to satisfying her voracious sexual appetites.  It turns out that she has since childhood felt a profound inner emptiness which she thought that various forms of purely carnal sex might fill up, though — wait for it — they didn’t!  Imagine that!

The drama of the dysfunctional family in Melancholia is familiar bad soap opera stuff.  The incidents in Nymphomaniac are more varied and engaging.  Some of them are even vaguely erotic, even if they don’t add up to much as a psychological portrait of their protagonist.

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Von Trier is, philosophically speaking, an existential nihilist, and he makes a valiant attempt to cast his protagonist’s acceptance of her basically meaningless life as an act of courageous heroism.  Some, like that happy-go-lucky hairpin Jean-Paul Sartre, might find this convincing but it seems a bit puerile to me.  It’s certainly no fun, presenting sex as a desperate existential chore.  Lie back and think of Huis Clos.

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Von Trier also makes an utterly unconvincing case for his protagonist as a feminist pioneer, suggesting that if a man had led the life of sexual adventuring she led he would be admired.  Perhaps, but only by idiots.  Heartless sex is heartless sex, whatever the gender of those who engage in it.  It’s not the worst thing in the world but it doesn’t make any life worth living sub specie aeternitatis, or any other specie I can think of.

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There are, as I say, a few amusing and titillating passages in the film and it has a witty, unexpected twist at the end but, by the second half of the four-hour version I watched, its governing mode had become pure ennui.  You have to work hard to make sex boring but von Trier pulled it off in Nymphomaniac.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

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There has long been a theory that his first wife Polly Platt was the creative genius behind Peter Bogdanovich.  It’s based on the fact that after he stopped working with her, a few years after they separated, Bogdanovich’s career went into a precipitous decline from which it never quite recovered

Platt encouraged Bogdanovich to film Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show.  There have been rumors that she worked closely with McMurtry and Bogdanovich, uncredited, on the screenplay and played a decisive creative role on the set.  The actor Ben Johnson said she virtually co-directed the film.  She certainly designed the film, her credited role, with impeccable authenticity and taste.

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Bogdanovich was a fine filmmaker, but It was Platt’s critical evaluation of material, and the ways to approach it, that seemed to keep Bogdanovich on course in the years of his success, and whose absence left him a bit adrift after Platt moved on.

Platt (pictured above with Bogdanovich) described their creative partnership this way — “He’s the locomotive, I’m the tracks.”  Bogdanovich’s career after Paper Moon, the last film he worked on with Platt, can be fairly described as a locomotive that’s gone off the tracks.

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In any case, The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, wonderfully cast and brilliantly shot.  Though Timothy Bottoms (above) carries the film as its principal character, our window onto the tale, the heart of it is Ben Johnson’s powerful performance as Sam the Lion, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

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The film is about the passing of time, the dying out of a small Texas town, and Sam the Lion (above) personifies what’s being lost in the process, the old breed of Texan whose world is vanishing.  Without Johnson’s character, we wouldn’t have quite the same sense of what’s at stake in the film’s mournful, bittersweet parade of longing and disappointment and heartache.  Johnson gives the film an epic dimension, elevates it into the highest ranks of American cinema.

SHORT TAKE: EXPERIMENT IN TERROR

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A fairly enjoyable thriller with no particular depth or complexity, stylishly shot in black-and-white by Philip Lathrop and stylishly directed by Blake Edwards.

The real pleasures of the film are its stars, the ever vexing Lee Remick and the ever reliable Glenn Ford, and a super-cool score by Henry Mancini.

It was recently released in an excellent Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, with the memorable score available on an isolated track.

FROZEN

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This computer-animated feature from Disney is generally charming and occasionally funny.  I watched it in 3D at home on Starz and found it to be engaging visually but not inspired, without the invention and zest of Spielberg’s computer-animated 3D feature Tintin, for example.  I found the songs relentlessly mediocre if serviceable, and have no idea why one of them, “Let It Go”, became a huge hit.

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I’m not sure, either, why Frozen itself became such a huge hit, but suspect it’s because the film deals with female empowerment in a genial and amusing way, and because its main protagonist, Princess Anna, is such an appealing character, well-written (by Jennifer Lee) and well-voiced (by Kristin Bell).  Her quirky spirit keeps the film aloft though its more predictable twists and turns.

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Frozen also has an unusually strong relationship between two sisters at its core, which gives it a certain thematic freshness.

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The young female audience is poorly served by Hollywood these days and will strongly support competent fare aimed at it.  It’s interesting that Frozen, like Titanic, another film whose success was driven in great part by female teens, increased its gross each week in the first three weeks of its release, a very unusual pattern.  When young females get word of a film they can relate to the buzz among them spreads fast and they will revisit the film repeatedly.

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Young females are certainly as strong a market for films as young males, and probably a more reliable one, but the male dorks who run Hollywood would generally still rather make films for young males than for young females.  Only personal pathologies can account for this.

Click on the images to enlarge.

SLIM

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“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.”

Click on the image to enlarge.